Skip to content

Month: July 2017

You take the high road and I’ll do the other thing.

Stuart Middleton


28 July 2017

When I was leaving Intermediate school, I was headed, along with my twin brother, to Hamilton Technical College to do a course in carpentry. Our two older brothers had both attended that school and our Mother had gone there in the mid-1920s. We knew it was a good school!

But coming out of church one Sunday, the Principal of the intermediate school came across to our parents and said: “I want to see you about your boys!” We feared the worst but could not think why. Mum dutifully went across to the school on the Monday to talk with the Principal.

“Your boys should not be sent to Hamilton Technical College,” the Principal announced.

“Why?” responded a rather surprised mother.

“Because….” he paused a little dramatically, “they are academic!” he said.

Never one to argue with a teacher, Mum continued….“Well where should they go?“ she asked.

“Hamilton Boys High School – they have an academic programme,” he said.

“No,” she responded immediately, “they are too little to go to a boys school.”

Discussing this later that night at home we were all perplexed. What did he mean? What is academic? We had been called many things but never “academic”. It was a very unsettling time and where we once looked forward to going to secondary school with certainty about the future, we were now somewhat apprehensive. In the end, the answer to our dilemma was to go to a new school that had an academic stream. Which we duly did and arrived at the start of the year not really knowing or understanding what we faced.

It turned out to both bad and good advice that the Principal had given. Flawed rather than bad – we were simply unprepared for the demands of academic schooling and while our successes were good enough – we certainly explored the elegance of a low “C” and a high “D” – they were not robust in an academic sense.

Good in the sense that we were on a pathway that took us to university (first-in-family at the new Waikato University which had conveniently opened just when we needed it), on into teaching and rewarding lives in that field.

The Principal had however fallen into the trap of thinking that “academic” and “technical/vocational” were binary in terms of choice. As was common in those days, being a plumber was for one group while being a doctor was for another. These views guided a lot of decision making ib schooling such as designing tracks through school which really did commit young people to certain but not always necessarily secure futures. The academic / vocational choice was applied with a rigidity that was not helpful. And that is where the difference lies between then and now. In the more modern setting, learning and career progression require skills that are both academic and vocational.

Young people going into courses which are thought of as vocational or technical are often held back somewhat by their lack of academic preparation often described in New Zealand as having been “not very good at school”

Meanwhile the universities, which love to dine out on the fact that they are not vocational only open the doors to those who are generally academically ready to tackle their qualifications which are well and truly vocational – doctors, lawyers, economists, ophthalmologists, audiologists, and more are simply trades-in-white-coats. (Come to think of it, when I take my car in for servicing some of them are wearing white coats!)

There has been a convergence between academic and vocational education but this is not being sufficiently recognised in the way we go about organising education. We brand education activity as academic or vocation by institution type, by qualification structures, by levels of esteem, and by the way we carve up of the government education pie.

The result is not excellence but rigidity. We cannot seem to replicate in our education system, the flexibilities of Germany, the Netherlands and most of Scandinavia where pathways through education and training are flexible, where students can reflect their maturing aspirations by matching them to courses rather than being locked in inevitable outcomes. It is a much more sensible use of a country’s most valuable natural resource i.e. young people.

The new world is one which is characterised by multiple pathways, managed transitions, line of sight to careers, flexibility, seamlessness and high levels of engagement all. It is a very simple world to live in if we think that it is just matter of a choice between “academic” or “vocational / technical.” It might also be a world that has never existed.

Leave a Comment

The Dash for Cash Continues: The Election Year Money Scramble

Stuart Middleton


25 July 2017


As money continues to be tossed around, the latest fist-full seems almost to have been targeted.

The suggestion that schools would get a cash payment if they opted not to ask parents for funds on the face of it, an intriguing and innovative idea aimed at trying to equalise the current iniquitous situation that results from demanding payments from parents.

Of course, I exaggerate. They do not demand money. Instead we have the wonderfully beatific sight of school communities rising as one in a sense of duty to make an exorbitant and, of course unsolicited, donation to the school.  Driven by that unifying inner urge that drives lemmings to the cliff’s edge, bargain hunters to Smith and Caughey’s Sale, and crowds to rugby matches, they are united in a common cause. And the schools smile as they count the cash.

Well, only some schools. Those who are already able to ask and ask and ask parents to pay for this and that and the other thing, all in the knowledge that if things get tough the Old Boys and Girls will rally round. But there are a lot of schools who serve communities that cannot contribute cash.

But wait! If the going rate for not paying school fees if to be a threshold of $120k then obviously schools that collect less will opt into the scheme and those who collect more will simple carry on.

Now, I must say that the schools that collect less will be very happy and so they should be. It a few years since I was in a school but we had to work hard to get a fraction of this and to get more would have been glorious – what might seem like a little when compared to the winnings of the rich state schools would have been riches indeed. So at least some punters will be happy. And it almost seems as if it was addressing equity.  But is it really.

The schools that have little difficulty in collecting cash will exceed $120k by far. It won’t matter to them that some other schools are now ahead of where they once were – they stay right out in front.

Now what might be fairer would be for a government to increase school funding on some fair and equitable basis, probably roll-related (which also favours the rich schools but it does have an equitable look to it) and to apply the formula across all schools.  Then they should deduct from that total funding to a school the amount that that school community has contributed. It was always a basic tenet of the welfare state that those who could pay, should pay.

This is a somewhat frivolous suggestion because some things never change and one of those things is that there will be rich schools and schools that will have to be careful within tight and small  budgets. It all contributes to the social inequities of New Zealand schools but who would want to have the success of the Scandinavian schools which manage social equity between school if it has to come at the cost of privilege?

Leave a Comment

Please Sir, I want some more!

Stuart Middleton


24 July 2017

When little Oliver went to Mr Bumble with his soup bowl held out to say “Please sir, I want some more!” he went because the other boys, scoundrels all of them, forced him to. And was Mr Bumble right to react in the way he did? “Whaaat?”

I feel that we are in a situation somewhat akin to this with offers to spend an additional $4 Billion on education. More money for education sounds good but what does the “more” mean? Is more of the same in terms of what we are doing?

  • More NEETs arriving at the end of their educational journey to a place of little hope?
  • More of the severe skill shortages that hold us back?
  • More rigid adherence to the lock-step approach to navigating through the years and over the sectors?
  • More students dropping out of school?
  • More increases in truancy.
  • More children going to school to be fed?
  • More difficult children testing the system?
  • More disgraceful fights and goings-on between school students on social media?

If it is any of these outcomes and a whole lot more are not addressed and the money used to carry on the same ways then it will be money squandered. The key issues in education are really about the way current money is distributed and spent rather than the quantity. Without the detail, around both the spending of new money and the better use of existing money, we are simply ensuring that we will do the same and get the same – and that should not be acceptable.

One measure of the spending in the public sector is the % of government spending that goes into the different sectors. A comparison between the education spend in four countries is interesting: New Zealand, Australia (they are so like us), Germany (we would like their outcomes) and Sweden (we seem to envy much that they do).

Expenditure on Education as a % of Government Expenditure

  New Zealand Australia Germany Sweden
1985 9.1 % 10.0 % 9.0% 10.1%
2015 18.0 % 13.9 % 13.9% 15.1 %

Those raw figures might suggest that money is not the issue. We seem to all start from a similar base and New Zealand has moved well ahead. And yes, there is more complexity in such comparisons than I have suggested here. But…..

I am not arguing that we should spend less on education, rather I am asking whether we can point to gains and advantages over those three other countries that are commensurate with the spend, especially when in NZ so many little Olivers still have no soup in their bowl and many big Olivers are stuck in the rut of idleness?

I also wonder whether a better spend of extra funding should be tackling child poverty in ways that see all young people arriving at school ready to go, ready to learn and ready to succeed. There are critical features of children poverty that education cannot address despite the habitual promise of education “that if we are given the tools we’ll do the job.” The job that education can do is critical in seeing that expenditure in children’s health has been invested wisely, that reducing child poverty brings real benefits to the economy and the nation and that supporting families the critical contribution to creating the capability of people to earn a family sustaining wage, to support children that they have and to live a healthy life in which they contribute to their community.

If only Mr Bumble had seen the wisdom of giving little Oliver another bowl of soup!

Leave a Comment

Give me a SCHOOL! Give me a COOL! Give me a COL!

We live in interesting times. Take a SCHOOL, remove the s..h and you have a COOL. Take a COOL, remove the O and you have a Col.

The recent introduction into our schooling system of both COOLs and COLs is an interesting development. The first is about a different educational entity in the system which will challenge the conventional school while the second is about relationships between schools that will lead to greater effectiveness achieved through grouping schools in a region or, in some areas, through bringing together a faith-based group or a group of high decile schools which is also a faith-based group in a kind of way.

These developments point to two things – that the Government wishes to loosen the grip conventional schools have on schooling by creating COOLs – schools of choice for students who wish to pursue their schooling in ways that allow them to use their time differently. They can access school learning on-line at times that suit them rather than those of the regimented school bell system in the School Office. This will suit those whose talents are such that they wish to pursue a future in music, sports, and other areas of endeavour which are best pursued in daylight.

If you look at developments since 2009 there is a theme that emerges and that is a realization that the one-way approach that New Zealand had fallen into over the previous thirty years was being challenged. Staying in a conventional comprehensive high school for five years was not the best choice for all and it was becoming clearer that it had contributed to significant disengagement and static achievement outcomes.

Soon after the MIT Tertiary High School broke the mould and achieved the necessary changes to the Education Act, trades academies came along. Again, that theme – students got the message that some of your time in school could with profit be used elsewhere. Later, Youth Guarantee places in ITPs were offered and challenged the monopoly that the school system had in the area of free education. It had long been wrong that students could stay in school and pass or fail without question but a student who wished to leave school at the legal school leaving age had to start paying for that education. NZ was the only country in the OECD that had this quirky anomaly.

Around this time, a book was published in Canada called “The Comprehensive School is Dead!”. This was a slightly optimistic assertion but the prevailing wind was suggesting that an education system characterized by choice, flexibility and multiple pathways was more like to be a system that would meet their needs of a wider group of students. It has taken a long time to get out of the comprehensive rut but pleasing signs are developing that working differently produces different results. You don’t have to be Einstein to know this a – although it was Einstein who warned us – if we do the same we will get the same.

It will be interesting to see what develops but the COLs are seemingly well under way and, despite the rhetoric of the past 40 years which saw schools compete with each other one way or another, it is encouraging that schools are discovering that there are some clear advantages in cooperating.

Collaboration is tastier of course when sweetened with a little dash of cash! But more importantly it is encouraging relationships across the Berlin Walls that are called sectors (and both in Berlin, during the cold war, and in Education). There are two COLs that I am aware of that include primary, secondary, and tertiary providers.

I am told that approximately 17,200 secondary school students are doing some and, in at least one institution, all of their secondary schooling in a place other than a school. It is a little early to be welcoming the dawning of a new era but we should recognize that the signs are positive.

Leave a Comment

An Invitation to a Conference

You are invited to attend New Zealand’s leading Conference on Pathways and Transitions in New Zealand – Te Ara Whakamana : the 8th International Symposium on this important area in New Zealand education – offering options for students, leading students on to positive pathways to great futures.

For more information follow these links:



Te Ara Whakamana 2017 MIT Manukau Campus Manukau Central
4 – 5 September 2017
Manukau Institute of Technology      Ako Aotearoa       Industry Training Fed.


Leave a Comment